What is a Hinge Cut?
The purpose of hinge cuting is to get the tree canopy to the forest floor without killing the tree. After cutting most of the way through the trunk, you leave a portion of the trunk intact to act as a hinge as you push the tree over.
What used to be 15 feet in the air is suddenly 3 feet off the ground. You now have browse, food and cover in a spot that previously possessed neither.
Once hinge cut, a tree stays alive because the cambium layer, which is responsible for nutrients and water transfer within the plant, remains unbroken. You get immediate cover on the ground, and you now maintain new browse where deer can reach it.
The Drawbacks of Hinge Cutting
Many forest stand improvement (FSI) projects are difficult to undo. Whether it is a thinning, a bedding thicket, an edge feather, or a hinge cut, it can take years to regenerate a poorly executed cut.
I see it often with hinge cutting. The landowner completes a hinge cut along an access trail and then jump deer every time hunters to access their stand. By creating horizontal structure, which is often absent in mismanaged woodlots, they have conditioned the deer to loiter in that location. Unless heavy equipment such as a forestry mulcher or bulldozer is used, the landowner is stuck with the mess until the trees finally succumb to their injuries and are shaded out by the remaining standing timber.
Once the hinged tree is dead, you then have to wait for the trees themselves to decompose and break down. All in, you could be looking at a 10- to 15-year commitment until the evidence of an ill-advised cut is erased, depending on the species and local conditions.
If there are too many hinged trees in the area and not enough escape routes, you could be serving up deer fawns on a platter as they struggle to escape the mess of tangled, living, hinge-cut trees.
The next complaint about hinge cuts comes from from the foresters. Let’s say a landowner completes a 1-acre hinge cut project within the boundaries of a future timber harvest. Even if this harvest is 5 to 10 years after the initial hinge cutting took place, the limbs and trunks of the hinged trees are still alive, sturdy, and a nightmare for any logger to safely maneuver around while wielding their saw. It becomes a liability for the landowner, and the logging crews will often leave these sections standing in the name of safety.
Finally, the biggest mistake I see with any FSI project is invasive plant species taking over the project site. These intruders are often present at the time the project is executed but simply overlooked. Since these non-natives generally have a longer growing season and a lack of natural enemies, they explode when given more sunlight. Once established, they quickly consume the site and render it impenetrable and virtually useless for deer aside from some occasional browsing along the perimeter.
The most common culprits are often vining species such as bittersweet, wisteria, kudzu or Japanese honeysuckle, depending on your region of the country, though shrub species such as wineberry, bush honeysuckle, multiflora rose, Chinese privet and autumn olive can thrive in these disturbed locations as well. Do yourself a favor and take the time to combat these invasive plants before executing an FSI project! A simple foliar spray or cut stump treatment will extend the positive impacts of your efforts.
Next, let’s look at the Best use of hinge cuts and the applications I recommend.